Florida Man 2.0: Behind Minshew’s mustache lie ‘genius tendencies’

Updated: October 9, 2019

8:00 AM ET

SUNRISE ISN’T FOR at least another hour. The air reeks of that sweet, sweet Florida sulfur. The only light comes from the glint of a rusted streetlamp off the community trash compactor, yet still — still — Gardner Minshew is smiling as he pulls out of his apartment complex in Jacksonville on a dank morning last week.

He is talking about escapes.

“I’ve been learning to play the guitar,” he says, gesturing toward the radio that’s playing the Allman Brothers. His grin is wider than his (considerable) mustache. “It’s been going … slowly. But I kind of love it.”

As we cross the bridge into downtown, Minshew asks if I have heard of something called Yousician (I haven’t). He explains that it is an app, created in Finland, that features instrument tutorials and — critically, he says — a virtual instructor that listens and corrects you as you try to play. Each night, after he’s done with football practice and football study and football preparation, Minshew puts in his earphones and slips away from all that is bubbling around him, zoning out with his automated music teacher as he tries to master the chords and frets.

Minshew took up the guitar about a month ago, he says, which makes sense because that is also when the speed of his life suddenly went from a syrup drip to a freight train. There was the injury to Jaguars starting quarterback Nick Foles and coach Doug Marrone calling Minshew’s name. Then came the string of completed passes that first day — 13 in a row to start his career in a 22-for-25 performance — followed by the closer-than-close rally in the second game. Then came Thursday night bedlam against Tennessee. And the fourth-quarter miracle a week later in Denver.

Now there are T-shirts with Minshew’s face on them and beer cans with Minshew’s face on them. There are awards and endorsements. The Jags are selling Minshew-branded ticket plans, and there is a litany of stories about Minshew’s glorious facial hair and his rakish headband and his tattered jean shorts and his (occasional) preference for stretching while wearing nothing but a jockstrap.

In a season that has seen backup quarterbacks dominate the headlines — seven took the field for an injured starter in the first four weeks alone — the fascination with Minshew is its own universe, where interviews and candy deals and so, so, so many memes mesh together with the endless speculation on the radio and the TV and just about every dive bar east of Tallahassee: Can Minshew, who was expected to be little more than a serviceable backup, actually keep this up? Is he for real? And, if he is, what will the Jags do in another month when Foles is healthy and they have to choose between their $50 million franchise player and a guy who looks like Florida Man crossed with Peyton Manning?

All of it would be a lot for anyone to take, let alone a sixth-round draft pick who wasn’t sure he’d even make the team this season. Given the hysteria of his newfound circumstances, then, Minshew knew he needed to find an outlet, which is where the guitar comes in.

His initial goal, he tells me from the same well-worn sedan he drove at Brandon High School in Mississippi eight years ago, is simple: Get good enough to play “Wagon Wheel,” the Southern classic about a man hitchhiking his way toward a woman in North Carolina. He has a venue in mind too: Every summer, Minshew’s family takes over Cabin 1, right by the entrance at the Neshoba County Fair, known more colloquially as Mississippi’s Largest House Party. Minshew loves the fair and giggles like a little boy when I ask what it would be like for him to sit outside of Cabin 1 and strum “Wagon Wheel” while everybody he knows and loves in the world sings along.

His eyes go wide. “Man,” he says as he parks his car and heads into work as a starting quarterback in the NFL. “You know what? Honestly, if I could do that it would really be the pinnacle.”

THERE ARE, OBVIOUSLY, some considerable physical skills that helped Minshew — who is barely 6 feet tall and who attended four colleges in search of consistent playing time — find success. To offset his (relative) undersize, he is so strong he can lift weights with the linebackers, and his intensity during practice runs so hot that one of his old quarterbacks coaches, Alex Williams, remembers Minshew literally hitting himself in the face if he missed an easy throw during a training drill. (“Not hard or anything, but still,” Williams says.)

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  • Nearly everyone who comes into contact with Minshew, however, ends up with the same conclusion: His biggest weapon is his brain. Mike Leach, who coached Minshew at Washington State in his last (and best) college season, tells me, “He has genius tendencies,” and those smarts were a big part of what led the Jags to take a flier on Minshew in the sixth round of April’s draft. Tom Coughlin, the Jags’ head of player personnel, immediately highlighted Minshew’s ability to be “quick” in carrying what he learned in the film room to the field. “He’s very smart; he’s very sharp,” Coughlin said then. “He will suck up all that information, and then, based on what we have seen, he will go onto the practice field and carry it with him.”

    Turns out, Coughlin was right — only it wasn’t on the practice field. When Minshew thrived so quickly after taking over in Week 1, Marrone was legitimately surprised, he says, because the playbook had been designed for Foles, not Minshew.

    “The game plan is written for a different quarterback and he just goes in there and executes it?” Marrone tells me after the team’s workout one day. “A lot of players don’t have the head to do that.”

    Minshew has always had the head to do that, even before it was quite this on-display. After two unremarkable seasons at East Carolina, Minshew had actually agreed to take a job with Nick Saban at Alabama as a graduate assistant, thinking he’d probably get into coaching once his college eligibility was done. Before he made it official, though, Leach recruited him to Washington State, asking Minshew just one question — “How would you like to lead the nation in passing?” — that led Minshew to play one more season (in which he finished the year second in passing) and sent him on his course to the NFL.

    Minshew doesn’t have a good explanation for his mental acuity; football plays, and football players, just unspool in his mind. It happens in fantasy sports too: Tre Polk, who is one of Minshew’s closest friends from Brandon, says Minshew stunned their dynasty league this past summer when he opted to redraft nearly his entire team (which is named Trust the Process) and start from scratch.

    “It was ridiculous,” Polk says. “He must have known something about Melvin Gordon, and he worked out with Josh Jacobs and liked what he saw so he took him, and he took the Patriots defense, and he grabbed Austin Ekeler …” Polk goes on for a few minutes like this before putting on the bow. “Bottom line: He redrafted, like, his whole team, and he’s tied for first place. He just sees the game in a different way.”

    I ask the obvious follow-up: Who is Minshew’s quarterback?

    “That’s the thing,” Polk says. “I keep waiting for him to pick himself up, but no one took him. Gardner Minshew is available in Gardner Minshew’s fantasy league.”

    Polk laughs. “Gardner actually took Kyler Murray.”

    IT SHOULD BE said: Minshew has some experience with sudden celebrity. He became the starter at Brandon during his sophomore year, when Polk, who had been playing in front of him, broke his arm. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) Minshew entered, cinched a hammerlock on the starting job and promptly led the team to the state title game twice in three years. “They’ve been putting microphones in his face since before his voice broke,” says his dad, Flint. “He threw for 11,000 yards and 105 touchdowns — he’s used to people knowing his name. But this is on a different level.”

    The ingredients, though, remain the same. Sports — particularly high school sports — all but demand conformity, but Minshew’s devotion to being himself is both fierce and endearing. In high school, his closest group of friends included football players, sure, but also John Wilson and Connor Aultman, two “uncool nerds” — Wilson’s words — whom Minshew sat with in an advanced English class. Since Minshew often had to skip lunch for football work, the trio persuaded their teacher to let them grill paninis on Wilson’s George Foreman Grill in the few minutes before the lesson began.

    But simply cooking the sandwiches wasn’t enough. “We all like to do stupid stuff,” Aultman says, and so they christened themselves the Panini Party club, with Wilson as president, Minshew as the undersecretary for Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce and Aultman as chairman of the butter department (necessary for greasing up any panini). Initially, they began each meeting by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a pair of American flag pants that Minshew wore with remarkable frequency but ultimately hung up a flag on the wall outside the classroom, Aultman says, in order to “class it up.”